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Grampus & Pike fire of 1908

Grampus & Pike fire of 1908
Grampus & Pike fire of 1908

The photo above shows the fire fighting efforts to put out a gasoline fire on the water's surface at the Mare Island Navy Yard. The fire also engulfed a work barge/machine shop for the submarine's flotilla as well as the submarines Grampus and Pike that were moored to the barge on September 18, 1908. The ship on the left playing a stream of water onto the flames is the USS Arethusa (AO-7).

The submarines were to enter the dry dock later in the afternoon of September 18, 1908 and in accordance with the yard regulations all flammables were to be removed. There are conflicting reports as to the method used. The most likely method used was the submarines had pumped their fuel tanks overboard and the waste fuel was to have dissipated and gone out with the current. The other report was the fuel was pumped aboard the barge.

In any event, in the afternoon of the 18th while the submarines were completing their work preparatory to entering the dry dock the gasoline on the barge and in the water exploded into a sheet of flame throwing burning gas into the air and in an instant the barge was ablaze from end to end. The men on the barge and on the decks of the submarines leaped into the water to escape the flames on the barge. Burning fuel was thrown over the submarines and in less than a minute both had caught fire. Four men inside the Grampus pulled the submarine's hatch shut and remained imprisoned inside until the fire was extinguished.

As the conflagration unfolded, a score or so of men on the barge and the submarines jumped into the water to escape the flames. They were both Navy personnel and civilians. Chief Machinist Mate Theodore May and Fred Martin, a civilian "bumboat boy", alongwith an Italian laborer whose name is not known, all entered the water alongside the burning vessels. As rescue efforts ramped up and those escaping the flames were pulled from the water these men were not found or even noted as having been in the water at all. When a head count was taken later in the day it was noted these three men were not anywhere and were presumed to have drowned. It was known that May did not know how to swim. No sign was ever found of them.

The most seriously injured were LT Julius Curtis Townsend, Chief Gunners Mate M. H. Lehy, and Chief Gunners Mate Morrin. It was not noted to which vessels these men were attached.

During the process of fighting the fire the Navy tugs Fortune and Unadilla caught fire and sustained considerable damage. One of the tugs can be seen at the right side of the above photo.

The fire was put out eventually and the barge turned out to be a total loss. This barge was used as a work barge and machine shop for the only two submarines on the west coast of the United States and many useful items necessary for their maintenance probably were destroyed with it.

It is generally believed that a lighted match or cigarette was thrown into the water. It may have ignited the vapors being given off by a quantity of refuse gasoline afloat on the surface. The flames ignited several hundred gallons of highly flammable gasoline which had been pumped out of the tanks of the submarines Pike and Grampus. The Grampus' commanding officer and also the submarine flotilla commander, LT Edwin Horace Dodd, was held responsible for the fire and damage.

Dodd was ultimately brought to a court martial on charges of neglect of duty. The court martial was concluded October 31, 1908 and the general conclusion was Dodd had done all he could to have averted the accident. It was determined that he would have pumped the submarine fuel tanks away from the docks and barge out in mid current had there been a yard tug available to him for that purpose. As it turned out the fuel remained pocketed around the submarines and work barge and was ignited when a lighted match or cigarette was thrown in the water.

On December 2, 1908 it was reported in the newspapers that the submarine boat Pike, which had been overhauled and repaired at the Mare Island Navy Yard to correct the fire damage and to complete the normal upkeep she had been originally scheduled for, was completed and she had been put through a series of tests.

The boat was submerged several times and on one occasion staying under water for twenty minutes while checks of all systems and hull joints and rivets were made. The cost of this overhaul was $20,000. The Grampus was undergoing a similar overhaul and was to be tested the following week.

U.S. Navy Photo

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